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Jewish Female Scholars Find Inspiration in Same

In the past two weeks, I have had coffee with two important Jewish women who have spent the fall semester as fellows at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Both have reminded me of the value of good conversation and the affective and intellectual gifts of getting together with other scholars, artists, or thinkers; and to be more specific, Jewish scholars, artists and thinkers; and to be even more specific, Jewish female scholars, artists and thinkers.

I work in a small, well-regarded college of public affairs at Michigan State University, where I am surrounded by generally thoughtful men and women who study, write about, and teach subjects ranging from international relations to Michigan’s economic future, from the early history of the American republic to the nature of nationalism today.

At times, I imagine that I am out of step because I love the humanities, and teach and research mainly Victorian novels and a broad range of Jewish literature (from Bible and Midrash, on one end, to the fiction of Jewish-American Gen X writers, on the other end). At other times, I think I am out of step because I am the currently pregnant mother of two young children — to this day, a rare phenomenon among as-yet untenured female faculty at many American universities. But then I realize that another part of being out of step is being a Jewish woman and intellectual among primarily non-Jewish intellectuals. What is the difference? I’ll try to answer this question with an anecdote.

At the downtown Ann Arbor Borders bookstore, I sat last week with Chava Weissler, Professor of Religion at Lehigh University, who is probably best known for her major book on women’s tkhines, or Yiddish devotions.

Weissler, the author of “Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women” (Beacon, 1999), gave me a quick sketch of her current project on the role spirituality plays in the Jewish renewal movement. Excitedly, she told me about discovering an anthropologist who has written about the paranormal experiences certain evangelical and charismatic Christians report; perhaps more surprising, this anthropologist reports herself coming to experience such moments while studying them. This accords with some of Weissler’s own experiences with her subjects.

Weissler came to this new material at the suggestion of Michal Kravel Tovi, a young anthropologist who studies ritual conversion in Israel and whose young son happens to be in my daughter’s kindergarten class here in Ann Arbor this year. Among scholars, conversations lead to hundreds of new pages written, chapters added, new books imagined. Weissler tells me she is fascinated by the idea that some religious practices — Jewish and non-Jewish — cultivate and also depend on a certain kind of “talent” for spirituality. What about those devotees who don’t have or can’t cultivate the talent, she asks, suddenly broadening the subject in a way that inspires new questions and answers.

She talked about the way her work has surprised her, extending its bounds and requiring new forms of expertise. And she asked me about my research on ethics and Victorian culture, and talked over with me the challenges of finding an academic publisher. She was kind and encouraging. I agreed to house-sit for her while she is out of town; we parted as new friends.

A week later, thanks to Weissler, I met Vanessa Ochs, whom I first encountered in print 15 years ago. Her autobiographical account, “Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey Into The Sacred” (Westview Press, 1999) described encountering the world of Jewish women’s learning in Jerusalem, a world I had just returned from. My reaction was to feel that I had a very different story to tell: we were of different generations, she observed as a kind of involved outsider, while I was so inside I could barely breathe. “Words on Fire” provided an impetus and inspiration for years when I was trying to define my work — Ochs’ being the only obvious point of comparison. Today, Ochs is an acclaimed writer, whose book, “Inventing Jewish Ritual” (JPS), won the National Jewish Book Award in 2007.

Ochs is currently working on Jewish objects and the sorts of homes they create. What kinds of objects, I ask. Photographs, she says: Jewish-American families are deeply invested in photos, they serve as shrines of a sort, as inspirations, as embodiments of family history, and amulets when people are sick. Books: All sorts, not just Jewish books, are central objects in Jewish homes. But her newest project is “The Biography of the Haggadah.” She tells me she knows a great deal about contemporary haggadot … and almost nothing about ancient ones — and she is in the process of teaching herself the history of the ancient haggadah.

Then she tells me that her decades-long year involvement with the organization Women of the Wall is taking a turn in the wake of the recent arrest of a young woman at the Kotel. She asks me what it means to me to have written a book that is not scholarly and yet to have a perch at an academic institution. She asks if I feel out of step.

I do feel out of step, but not mainly because of the sorts of books I write. I’m out of step because something about these conversations has been so sadly missing in my daily life. These older Jewish women, writing things they know well and writing things they know little about, stretching their own capacities, increasing their libraries, mental and physical, have given me new snapshots. So this is what it can look like to be a Jewish woman researching, writing, talking with others. So these are the things we can care about, wonder about, delve into, reject.

We need each other, is what these meetings reminded me. And not just at conferences or in phone conversations or in once-a-year meetings. We need each other for afternoon tea once a week.

I have 50 papers to grade, none of which fundamentally concerns my identity as a Jewish woman in the early 21st century. I have a faculty meeting. I need to help decide on an anthropologist who can teach a comparative culture and politics class. All of this is day to day, bread and butter, parnasa; but this Hanukkah, in Michigan’s gray, dim haze, I am recalling that we need some light.

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